April 28, 2008


OneFrumSkeptic recently wrote a post, blasting what she sees as the ever growing drift of frummies to conform. In her case, she sees her frum friends all basically heading into the same career field. While this is true, this sort of conformity in choosing career fields is present in all sub-parts of our culture to varying degrees. My secular friends all went into fields of finances and those in the Persian community always lean toward either being a doctor or lawyer. Every community out there has its own values and priorities that generally might affect certain decisions in life (in this case, a career). Now even though OFS agrees that at some level, conformity is inevitable, I still feel she was overly cynical.

Anyways, while (re)reading "This Is My God," by Herman Wouk, I stumbled on this:
Human Life cannot be formless. The only true nonconformists are in the asylums; the only radically free spirits are in the death house awaiting the chair. We live by patterns. We move in comradeships. We cannot move hand or foot without high signs and passwords, no matter what our work or our station may be; and while life lasts, we all wear uniforms. Conformity is evil when it distorts, flattens, and erases fruitful ways strong ideas, natural identities; it is evil when it is a streamroller. But a man cannot escape being part of a milieu-and a recognizable part- unless he flees naked to a cave, never to return.
Coincidentally, both OneFrumskeptic and the person Herman Wouk was responding to are college girls.

April 24, 2008

Thinking About Death

I think about death a bit too much. More than what would probably be considered healthy. I am very sentimental about life and everything that defines it—people, places, memories— and so when someone dies, its hard for me to take in that all those experiences and what define that person, are gone as well. Why am I writing this now? Well, my company is working with a local mortuary doing some TV spots for them. It basically consists of interviews with a family member talking about someone that they lost. Well, I have been given the task of scanning in lots and lots of pictures of the relatives that have passed away. I find myself starring at those photos. Thinking that this person is gone. This person was once a young child, far from thoughts of death. This person experienced different things in this world and accumulated many fond memories that they cherished in their hearts. But now they are gone. This, person, which I am scanning, was a world or even a universe of his own, but no more.

I tell you, discussions of biblical criticism and how to raise my children pale in consideration to the emptiness I feel not knowing what happens afterwards. And add to that feeling that it can come at any given second. We walk through Deaths shadow all day long and it’s at his discretion that we keep walking. But sooner or later, his finger points at you, and you are gone. And yes, the usual response is to lead a meaningful life and to make the best with the time we’ve got, but still, how depressing.

April 10, 2008

The Venetian Haggadah and Modern Sensitivities

Many years ago I got a reprinted, softcover edition of the famous Venetian (or Venice) Haggadah from Arachim (yes, the kiruv organization). There were two editions. The first was printed in 1609 and then it was reprinted in 1629. None of the images were changed, only some commentary was added. I have a feeling my version is the 1629 one because I do see some addition commentary inside. It has amazing wood cut drawings of not only the biblical episodes but also of things you find in the Midrash. I don't want to get too deep in the history of this haggadah right now. Anyone interested is more than welcome to do some further readings.

With this post, I would like to basically show you modern day censorship that I happen to have found in the Venetian Haggadah. Some of it may be correct and following halacha and perhaps some are just a bit silly in my opinion. To tell you the truth, with something as old as this haggadah, I had a strong feeling from the get go that I would find some things, and indeed I did. All the information I got on the original haggadah can be found right here.

The originals will be on the left and my edition is on the right. You may need to click on the image to see it larger.

This image has the Egyptians dying on one side while the Jews are dancing on the other. But if you look carefully, the reprinted edition has erased the two statues found on top of the column (inside the red circle.

In this image, you will notice that in the original, the moon in the background had a face to it while the reprinted does not.

You will notice that this image of people bowing down to idols and Terach and Abraham leaving in the background totally changed. The idols of celestials beings are removed and so are the people bowing down. Instead a man with a boy are put in which I am not sure where they got from.

There is an angel with a sword on the top left of the original, but it was taken out of reprint.

This image is of Avraham during the Brit bein HaBetarim (Covenant of the Parts). You will notice that not only was the sun removed, but the image of Avraham was changed as well. I'm not sure why. Maybe the way he was standing was a bit too Jesusesque for their taste.

Now, of course there had to be some tzniut issues. Well, if you notice the top left picture from the original has the woman showing some cleavage. In the bottom left image, you can clearly see the women's sleeves are rolled up. Well, in the reprinted edition, and it's a bit hard seeing it on the monitor, you can see the exposed skin was painted over, making you think everything is all covered.

Here's an interesting one. The scene is supposed to depict the Jews spreading and multipling. You can clearly see naked children in the original. In the reprinted they were all taken out except for the center part of the image which has everyone covered. Not only that, the entire background was changed. So where did they get that new background from? This one right here...

You can tell it's the same background. Look at the tree. They simply erased the other objects and colored over it.

Now, nothing was changed here, but I decided to add this because it has it's own fascinating story to it. You can read more about it right here.

The illustration in Plate 2 shows black idolaters. The caption below reads, in Italian Jewish vernacular, "Let the foolish nations perish, who serve devils and believe in witchcraft [raising the dead]." That language even gave the magical act of raising the dead, with its clear links to idolatry [Miamonides, Hilkot Avodah Zara 77: 11,13] a name that linked it to black sources, negromanzia. Blacks became identified with such activity within the Christian culture of the time. The source was popular etymology that associated teh similar phonetic sounds of the Greek nekros, a deady body, and 'negros.' Clearly this was no mere language error, but an associative link with the accepted cultural image of the black, with which the artist/printer of the Venetian Haggadah, so clearly identified.

Lastly are some images that were all together removed from my reprinted haggadah entirely.

Here is a scene of Akeidat Yitzhak. I am assuming the problem was with the angel on the top right. BTW, did you just notice something, cause I just did after putting up this image. Here is the man and the boy that were inserted to the photo above after the idol worshipers were erased. Now we understand why they simply didn't erase the angel. It's because they needed to use part of this image for something else and did not want people noticing them photoshoping an image and putting it someplace as well.

I guess it's not tzanuah showing a couple in separate beds. This is the description of this image from the website where I got the originals from: The lower image [the one I used] illustrates the rabbinic passage that the Israelites refrained from conjugal relations so as not to bring children into the world only to have them be drowned by Pharaoh’s men. The background picture shows infants being drowned in the Nile as their parents cry out to God.

This is my favorite one. Here is the description from the website: The image on this page illustrates the text which says that God will send evil angels to punish the Egyptians. The evil angels are depicted as demons whose breath emits one of the 10 plagues. For example, one of the demons crouches by the shore of the Nile while breathing on it and causing the water to turn to blood. Another emits lice from his mouth and a third locust.

So, are all of these changes being a bit too churadick, or are some changs halachically mandated. I just got out of a class tonight that mentions halacha forbids making images of anything in the heavens. So maybe its justified to make some changes. But I have to say, the painting the women's arms is rather silly, yet not something unheard of in the charedi community.

I emailed Arachim to see if they have any explanation for these changes. I haven't gotten a response yet, but I have a feeling I won't even get one and if I do, they won't even know what I am talking about. Could be, this wasn't even their call and this reprinted edition was changed by somone else and only later Arachim decided to use it. If they do respond, I will let you know what they say.

Israel Prayer....Too Offensive

JTA has a story about an egalitarian shul that are having some problems with this prayer for Israel. Apparently, they think it is too militeralistic, "Conflation of religion and politics, its tone of Jewish triumphalism and exclusivity."

Here are some quotes:
Expecting everyone to stand and recite, in unison, something so political clearly sends a message: If you don't identify with the vision of Israel that is expressed in this prayer, then you are wrong,"
What vision bothers this poor soul?
Alpert says the prayer should account for the consequences of Israel's creation for the land's other inhabitants.
I feel such triumphalism in the face of the conflict in Israel and Palestine is irresponsible."
I think this person needs a hug.
Aviva Bock, a member of the Newton Centre Minyan who teaches psychotherapy at Harvard University, says there is something problematic about simply reciting this formula.

"The prayer should be a reflection of our hopes and prayers in the context of today rather than something that feels to me like it was written at a very different moment in time," she said.
Well, what could you expect from a psychotherapist? Sorry 
Kalmanofsky himself recommended an alteration of the passage that speaks of Israeli soldiers achieving "victory," substituting instead a verse from Isaiah asking that they return in peace
At Manhattan's Jewish Center, a modern Orthodox shul, the congregation for many years had substituted an alternate version of the Israel prayer due to discomfort over the messianic element in the line characterizing Israel as "the first flowering of the redemption."

I really don't understand people sometimes. First of all, it says this shul (not the OJ one) follows a traditional siddur liturgy. Have they opened up the siddur lately. It's full of stuff about Israels exclusivity. Its full of places where we hope God will deliver us from its enemies. And messianic yearnings??? Ya, I think it mentions it there too. I wonder if this shul has a problem with the Torah's telling the Israelites to destroy the original inhabitants of Canaan. Perhaps we should add prayers for the souls of the Hittites. What about Tanakh?

I don't know. The way people conceive the world boggles my mind. Wanting those that want you destroyed, to be destroyed, is now politically incorrect. Victory is assur. It's offensive to the sensitivies of those that are defeated I guess. And why does it bother them calling Israel the first budding of the redemption? I mean, isn't that what these people are davening for? A redemption? In Judaism IIRC, redemption and a return to the land go hand and hand. So why do they get so offended by it all?

I would love to get a list of all the "offensive" things in the siddur and email this shul and see if they have a problem with it too. Or is just Israel? Anyone up for the challenge?

And then you have types like Gil, that have no problem tinkering with the prayer or ommitting it. Why? Two reasons. One, because it is recent. Well, weren't all prayers recent at some point or another? And the second, which I feel is for more sad is the fact that he says its political. The fact that Gil can say THIS prayer is political bothers me. How can it be political Gil? You are praying for its safety. You are praying for it being victorious. You are praying for its leaders to make right choices. And yes, you are praying that it is the beginning of a redemption. A redemption that you OBVIOUSLY believe is coming. If anything Gil, Israel should be a cause for all us to say thank you to God without you having to catogorize it into some sort of ideology first. I am SURE we can scroll through the siddur and even Talmud and find many "political" references.

April 9, 2008

Ben Avuyah 2008?

There is a story in the news about a man who was killed in an auto accident a day after he gave $5.6 million dollars in charity for Purim. Onionsoupmix discusses this here and even brings up the similarities between this story and that of Ben Avuyah's OTD journy after seeing the death of a person who sent a mother bird away to retrieve her eggs. The reward for this, the torah says is that your days will be lengthened (Deut. 22:7). The Gemera says that the reward actual is for the next world, though it also mentions that for Charity it can also be to prolong your days

Beyond granting monetary success and protecting one's possessions, giving Tzedakah even protects one's life.

In Mishlei (10:2; 11:4) we read, "Tzedakah saves from death." The Gemara (Bava Batra 10a) explains that Tzedakah saves a person from two kinds of death: from "death" (i.e., non-participation) in the world to come, and from dying an unnatural death. In Shabbat 156b the Gemara extends the power of Tzedakah to preventing (that is, postponing) death altogether. (See the Gemara in Shabbat ibid., which records a number of true stories that illustrate this fact.)

It is for this reason that the Gemara (Rosh Hahsanah 16b) tells us that before Rosh Hashanah a person should give charity. Charity, the Gemara tells us, is one of the three things that have the power to change an evil heavenly decree concerning a person's fate. Even if it has been decreed that a person is to pass away during the coming year, giving charity may change that decree and extend his life.

Perhaps this is what the Gemara means in Sanhedrin 35a when it says, "If a fast day is declared and Tzedakah is not given on that very day, it is as if innocent blood had been shed." Why should the withholding of charity be compared to bloodshed (see Rashi ad loc.)? According to what we have said, we may suggest the following explanation. A fast day called for by the prevailing rabbinic authorities is usually declared in the face of a current or imminent disaster. If a catastrophic heavenly decree is indeed in store for the fasters, then by not giving Tzedakah to prolong their own lives that are at stake, it is as if they have shed blood -- their own blood.

In Bava Batra 10a we learn that Rav Elazar used to set aside a small amount of money for charity before his prayers. The explanation for this practice is perhaps also based on this same theme. A person asks his Creator for health and long years to use for the service of Hashem, when he prays. In order for these prayers to be fully effective, a person must complement them with the life-giving effects of Tzedaka.

Measure for measure is the reward for giving charity.

The passuk they are talking about is is Proverbs 10:2

לֹא-יוֹעִילוּ, אוֹצְרוֹת רֶשַׁע; וּצְדָקָה, תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת
There is also this section from a book called Gates of Light, Sha'are Orah that seems to also imply one gets his life prolonged for giving tzedakah or a righteous act.

So it seems there is a lot of sources for it being a reward here. So, what's up with chazal saying it's a reward for the next world? Is Onionsoupmix correct in saying this is an example of cognative dissonance? Did Chazal simply try to cover all their bases? I mean when it comes to the mitzvah of driving away the mother bird, it explicitly says your days will be prolonged. And aren't all mitzvot rewarding in the next world which makes this then redundant and unnecassary if one understands it the way chazal did? Is there actually more to this than meets the eye? (hint hint to upcoming post)

Personally, when such horrible tragedy occurs, I am a big fan of simply saying "I don't know." I would rather that, than explanations that seem forced. And to tell you the truth, I am not so much bothered by chazal, than I am by people today simply parroting chazal's manner of thinking without carefully thinking about it themselves.

April 8, 2008

Useful Resources

I must have been asleep, but I just read a comment on GH's site about these two wonderful websites that have thousands of collections of online books.

They have the Prolegomena to the History of Israel by Julius Wellhausen. It's very long, but I'm really interested in at least attempting this "classic." I pdf'd it and it came out to be 414 pages.
I will add them both to the side bar.

April 7, 2008

The Real Tax Collector

Who ever said Rosh Hashanah is the day God judges you and basically sets out what the rest of your year will be like was wrong. It's not Rosh Hashanah, its tax season. This is the time of year where God sees what kind of Jew you really are. Nobody is watching you. This is the time when you can get away with a lot and never get caught. But in the end, will you be honest?

April 6, 2008

Ancient Cherubim

The reason this post is titled “Ancient Cherubim” is because the topic of the cherubim spans centuries, well into the medieval ages, but I prefer to home in on the cherubim of the biblical age; what were they, and how the Jews viewed them. There is no way I can do this topic justice. I am by no means a scholar on ancient mythologies and archeology, but it fascinates me so I will share with you some of my own insights.

Lets first discuss the etymology of the word cherub. Wikipedia mentions it’s a cognate of the Assyrian/Akkadian karabu or kuribu meaning great and mighty or blessed. Raphael Patai’s book The Hebrew Goddess takes the Akkadian karibu theory but says it means an intermediary between man and the Gods (ie. The one that brings the prayers of man to the Gods). For the heck of it, I decided to see what Shadal thinks of the word. In his commentary to Genesis, he says the word cherub is metathesized from the rakhuv [“that which is ridden’]. His source for this is in 2 Samuel 22:11. “He mounted a cherub and flew, He appeared on the wings of the wind.

I believe the only way to understand, or at least, to attempt to understand how the Israelites viewed the Cherubim is not only looking at our own scripture, but looking at outside sources and seeing how they overlap. For anyone that has only read our commentaries on this subject matter and not looked at the outside sources, a great deal is being missed. Much to my surprise, this is a much layered subject with many ANE sources helping explain other sources. It is quite interlocked in some aspects and in others, not so. I shall attempt to talk about the cherubs of the kapporet, the cherubs of Solomon’s Temple as well as Ezekiels vision.

Reading the Torah only, you are left with more questions as the identity and purpose of the cherubim than you are with answers. All you are told is one Cherub is left to guard Eden, and another pair is to be fashioned on top of the ark as the place where God communicates with Moses. It is these pair of cherubs that I would like to begin with. The Torah gives no description of what these cherubs are to look like. It is almost as if they knew or had their own vision of what cherubs looked like and God simply let artistic vision flow. No problem here, right? Well, I will let you know, that the Ark of the Covenant was the first thing that led me to skepticism. Doing my own little research, I saw pictures of ancient Egyptian artificacts and drawings that showed basically the same concept. I had thought our idea was somehow unique. But I saw an ark, being carried by slaves with a Pharaoh (God) seating on a throne with cherub like creatures with wings spread out on the sides of his throne. Here is an example of King Tut’s throne, with a winged Horus God on the side:

And here is an artifact showing King Hiram of Byblos seated atop of a throne, with a cherub on the side.

Cherubs and thrones for a God seem to go hand in hand in the ancient near east (ANE). It is not unique to the Israelites. You see this in Egypt all the way to the Phoenicians. One could argue that God, for his throne, was merely utilizing a method of expression that was incredibly common in those days. But this still does not tell us anything about what the Cherubim were and what significance they were to ancient people including the Israelites. Let us now move forward to the cherubs of Solomon.

After constructing his temple, he has two large cherubs placed over the Ark, and, has the entire wall in the inside engraved with cherubim and palm trees and blossoming flowers. Like I said above, anyone that has not looked at other sources other than our own would be baffled for this strange need to engrave cherubs and palm trees into the inner walls. What was the purpose? Weren’t Egyptians the ones that had engraved hieroglyphics inside their temples? How was Solomon constructing a temple with such obvious ‘outside’ influences? I have to admit, it does bother me somewhat. But I think it bothers me, because a) I live in the 21st century, and b) I received a pretty pathetic summary of Jewish history. In order for us to perhaps understand Solomon, we need to try to picture ourselves in those days. We will find, to all of our surprise that Solomon was merely utilizing what every other culture back then was doing. To a lesser degree it is probably not so much different than Jewish synagogues looking like mosques and churches. Architecture and the art that goes inside is always influenced by the time and place in which one lives. Solomon’s Temple was no different. As you can see in these examples, there were other nations that used cherubs with palm trees in their design. IMO, one can argue the merits of documentary hypothesis, but to argue that the Jewish expression of worship of their God is NOT influenced by outside influences is by now pointless. Also, lets not forget the Melachim mentions craftsmen of Chiram were also responsible for sculpting the stones. 

As you can see, a cherub or a cherub like creature next to a palm tree or, a sacred tree is quite common. Something interesting to notice in the last picture is that even though there is no palm tree, the cherub’s in Ahab’s “Ivory House” looks almost Egyptian. Odd, is it not? (update: I forgot to add the image of Ahab's "Ivory House" from The Hebrew Goddess previously)

Let us now move to one of the most famous portrayals of the cherubs. Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot with the four cherubs is probably one of the main focuses of mysticism. In it, he describes the cherub as a four winged, four faced human formed creature with eyes all over and a wheel attached to it. Where did this vision come from? What does it mean? Is there anything comparable to it in the ANE? I believe the only thing that comes close to Ezekiel’s cherubs are the Babylonian Genii pictured above (with the trees) and this one here:

Nothing else seems to come close to what Ezekiel describes. But what exactly was he describing? I think when looking at ANE one seems to come to the conclusion that one need not go to Jewish mysticism for an answer. Ezekiel was describing a chariot. More importantly he was describing a chariot inside a cloud. The cloud is God’s manifestation on earth and the cherubs and wheels and chariot are, “kivyachol" the clouds inner workings. Where else do we see this cloud? Well, we see this directly related to the mishkan and the Ark of The Covenant. God would manifest himself by a cloud descending into the mishkan and communicate through the Ark of the Covenant (his throne). We can perhaps now understand the pasuk in 2 Samuel 22:11

“He mounted a cherub and flew, He appeared on the wings of the wind.”

This is describing God’s means of locomotion and I am guessing, the the Israelites then mean't a cloud; since that is how it was believed God presented himself to his nation. David is more or less giving us a less detailed version of Ezekiels vision, and, it matches to how other ANE nations described some of their own God’s traveling by means of cherubs or other winged creatures. Here you have an image of a God traveling on the back of a cherub, or as composite animal.

As a quick side note, a rabbi I know had a theory that OUR cherubs might actually be ox. He gets this from another pasuk in Ezekiel’s description of the four faces of the cherubim. The text instead of saying Ox, it said had the face of a cherub. Hence a cherub is an ox. Ezekiel 10: 14

Each one had the four faces; the one face, the face of the cherub, the second face, the face of a man, the third face, the face of a lion, and the fourth, the face of an eagle.

After giving this some thought, I don’t think it works. It may be that the word ‘cherub’ can be used instead of an ox, since many cherubim had bodies of oxes like this image.

It’s not that a cherub IS an ox, but simply that they both share some characteristics and the words can be swiped and the available audience in that time were able to understand. Also, our cherub’s can’t actually mean an ox because the very same text is telling you that the actual cherub with four wings had a human form to it.

So in the end, do we make out of all of our findings. It looks like different cultures expressed the cherubim a bit differently, but maintained certain characteristics. It was the direct carrier of God and the closest to Him. It was the way He manifested himself in this world and communicated with man. I have to admit, I am still not sure what the palm tree in Solomon’s temple means, but I am sure with a bit more reading as to what it mean’t to other cultures, we can find out. The idea of cherubim was as international to them as a regular angel is to mankind in our times. Every culture utilized the cherubim for their specific belief. It could be that Hashem, to the Jews, does not go around and change all cultural aspects to a society. He simply uses it for his benefit. It is obviously very hard for us to relate to something like this which, for me, highlights even more Shadal’s insistence that we take ourselves out of our present time and into the days when our texts were written. There is obviously much more to discuss, and I am no scholar, but hopefully, this will give all of us a bit of push to do some further reading. It is something that can only help us better our understanding of the Israelite interest in cherubim that are found throughout our scriptures.

April 1, 2008

Worth Repeating

This comment was made by Fievel Chuchem regarding the previous post. Good stuff.

It ticks me off that the Palestinians can't do anything to bring us to peace unless it's in some kind of laboratory conditions. Under those conditions the Israelis always "can do more" or "should have done more".

But, have you ever noticed that for these people conditions are never quite right for the Palestinians to do more?

They have to be coaxed. They have to be rewarded. They have to be keep the "Palestinian street" in mind. Their misdeeds against Israel have to be called "pretexts" for what comes in response from Israelis. Blah Blah Blah.

Here's the truth - we all have our problems. We can all do more. But, whether you've been here 3 years or 30, if you're not here, you've got no skin in the deal. Sorry to be blunt, but your ass isn't on the line. Your self, your immediate family and friends, your property, your job are safe from this conflict.

When we decide, for example, that we can't remove a roadblock to make life easier for Palis, it's because we value our lives more than we feel guilty about the inconvenience to the Palis, and this in no small measure because the Palis do nothing to discourage and a lot to encourage harming us. We're not perfect, but we're not blind, either.

Consider that most of critics of Israel never fought in a war nor do they know anyone on a day-to-day basis who has - I mean combat, not support, and they know no one personally who has commanded an army or platoon. Most of us in Israel know such people and hear from the inside what their day is like. We know that they have to decide which bomb to select to keep peripheral damage to a minimum. We know they order a flight from a lower altitude even though this increases the chance of being shot down, but it increases accuracy and thus decreases collateral damage. But when it's my son who's the pilot, frankly I care less about the lives of civilians who voted for Hamas than him. But because of all of you who bleed for the Palis, I have to put him in danger when I send him to the army. You think I appreciate your advice? No, I don't.

Especially because in our immense diversity as Jews very many of us support the Palestinians in this conflict, I know we'll never have leaders who will attack Gaza now and put the terrorists out of commission, knowing this will cost the lives of 200 soldiers, but save 1000 soldiers in the conflict that will occur 5 years from now if we don't do it now. Those are the kinds of choices we are forced to face, and all the second guessing just weakens us and leads to more Israeli casualties. Yeah - I agree there's more we can do. Same for the Palis. But until it's done, we have every damn right in the world to question those who put we Israelis in some sort of unique position to solve this conflict. It is, frankly, our reasonable opinion, reasonable because it's based on trial and error, that the kinds of concessions we can make to the Palis will more likely end in the destruction of Israel as a Jewish/Democratic state than it will in two states living side by side in peace. I don't think there are many Israelis who wouldn't take the second option if they could, though I think with 84% of Palis supporting the merkaz harav murders (by an Israeli Arab, no less) this feeling is not reciprocated. Umm - don't you think this is reasonable to keep in mind?

I'm sorry our conflict here causes everyone so much unease, causing them to shift in their seats or stand in the corner at the dinner parties. It's awfully inconvenient, and so damn clear what we should do from 4500 miles away. But my best advice would be to leave it to Israelis to solve the problem and butt out if you can't offer moral support instead of moral castigation.